The Opportunity Agenda recently published a detailed meta-analysis of data regarding the public’s opinions on and understanding of poverty in America. Check out all three parts of the Window of Opportunity report when you have time, but for now here’s the summary of the public opinion findings:
American attitudes toward poverty, poor people, and government responsibility tend to be grounded in two competing sets of values: individualism and personal responsibility on the one hand, and equal opportunity and shared responsibility on the other. This duality leads to opinions that might seem to be in conflict. Most Americans hold both of these sets of values simultaneously, but they are not always in equipoise. During periods of economic prosperity, reliance on the values of individualism and personal responsibility tend to trump the belief in shared responsibility. When the economy worsens, a sense of shared responsibility typically increases and the public is more disposed to support investments in public assistance to poor people. The strength of the economy is one of several factors that can influence perceptions of poverty’s causes and solutions.
There are indications that Americans’ attitudes toward poverty and poor people are moving in a favorable direction. First, the widening gap between rich and poor has seen a growing disquiet. Second, poor people are viewed more sympathetically than in the past. Third, hopeful signs suggest that Millennials (those born between 1981 and 2001) may not be saddled with the same conscious or unconscious racial biases as their parents and grandparents. Millennials are also more likely than other age groups to believe that the government should do more to solve problems. Finally, support for government safety net programs in general and for several specific anti-poverty programs is fairly strong. These trends indicate that opportunities exist for promoting a constructive public discourse about poverty, one that elevates community values over individualism.